ST. ANSGAR — The hallmark of every good St. Ansgar football team over the years has been a huge offensive line, and then the skilled backs to make the most of that.
The Saints certainly have the skill guys this season, highlighted by Dayton Smith and his record-setting running, but it’s a line that’s grown up throughout a 9-0 regular season which has made the largest impact. When St. Ansgar opens its playoff journey Friday night at home against East Buchanan, it’s those guys up front the Saints know they’ll have to perform.
“It starts up front on both sides of the ball,” St. Ansgar coach Drew Clevenger said. “We have to establish our identity by running the ball offensively, and shutting down what they want to do defensively.”
Before the season started, the St. Ansgar offensive line, which graduated a ton from last year’s state semifinals team, was dealt a blow in the form of Theo Baldus not being able to play at all due to an injury. Baldus would’ve been a three-year starter.
So, with new guys all over the place, the Saints had to grow up in a hurry up front. The results this season have spoken for themselves.
St. Ansgar is second in Class A in rushing with 2,983 yards on 379 attempts, which is good enough for nearly eight yards per attempt. The Saints have also scored 42 touchdowns on the ground.
Clevenger said those numbers come back to the line.
“They’re a group that typically doesn’t get a lot of recognition,” the coach said. “It’s been fun to see them show up to practice every day with a lunch-pail mentality and a desire to get better.”
While that group has done the heavy lifting, the backs have enjoyed a nice season of their own.
Smith captured the Saints’ career rushing record last week in a win over Rockford, in addition to a slew of other individual game records.
His running mate, senior Josh Van Vliet, has had a nice season of his own in his first year starting in the back field. Coming in to Friday’s game, Van Vliet is second on the team with 607 yards on the ground and five touchdowns.
“He’s very much indicative of what’s great about our program,” Clevenger said. “He was primarily a special teams player prior to this year and was always a great worker and great practice player. He really stepped up nicely into a leadership role for us this year.”
It’ll be all hands on deck for the Saints, who are making their 12th straight playoff appearance, Friday night against an East Buchanan team which comes in with an 8-1 record.
East Buchanan boasts a similar rushing game to St. Ansgar in the fact multiple guys have piled up a good chunks of yards. Braydon Nunemaker leads the way with 816 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Brock Naber, Nolan Meyer and Max McGraw have combined for 1,242 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The Saints also have their eyes on the Buccaneers’ talented receiver Joke Ohl, who has 17 catches for 356 yards and four touchdowns.
Clevenger said, like most big games, this one will come down to special teams and taking care of the ball. If the Saints can keep building what they’ve already put forth this year, they like their chances.
“We try to keep an even keel throughout the year, win or lose,” Clevenger said. “We want to focus on getting better each week so we’re playing our best football at this time of year.
“To get to this point you have to be the best version of yourself or its going to be a short stay.”